When working in destination marketing, it’s easy to get caught up in the initial phases and to focus your attention and energy upon attracting visitors to your destination. But what happens once the visitors arrive? Your visitors need a physical place to begin their trip, to get comfortable with the location, and to plan their time in the destination. In order to fulfill your visitors’ needs and serve the market, an effective destination visitor and information center, or a “welcome center,” is key.
Fantastic visitor centers come in all shapes and sizes. A few of our favorites include National Geographic’s extensive Grand Canyon Visitor Center with features such as an IMAX theatre and detailed maps and information, the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, which is simple but comfortable and well-staffed, and the Bocas del Toro visitor center, which was the region’s first tourist center
This post will cover the 5 must-haves that make these visitor centers great and are valuable for any destination’s visitor center.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
5 Must-Haves for a Great Visitor Center:
1. Amenities- Consider the amenities that would make a visitor comfortable upon recently arriving in your destination. Clean and free bathrooms are always important. Especially if your destination is geared towards families, it would be helpful to offer baby changing facilities. If possible, consider the accessibility of your visitor center for the handicapped- a ramp or no stairs and spacious walkways are a good start.
An essential for visitors, particularly foreign visitors, is a way to get or exchange money. It is extremely helpful to offer a safe and reliable ATM and/or currency exchange machine on-site. If your visitors will be driving, be sure that there is adequate parking space available.
Depending upon the weather in your destination, and whether your budget allows, consider the heating or air conditioning in your visitor center to ensure that your visitors are physically comfortable while they visit the site. Make sure that the building itself is clean and well-lit, presenting an inviting space to guests. The provision of these amenities will help your visitors to be comfortable in your destination
National Geographic Grand Canyon Park Bocas del Toro Visitor Center
2. Practical Information- Visitors come to your visitor center in order to gather information about the destination. With this in mind, be sure that your information is current, accurate, trustworthy, and delivered in a high quality manner. Digital kiosks, a master guide to the destination, and a local city guide are all great ways of providing information. Your visitor center should be the number one place for visitors to go to find information about the destination and to have their questions answered. Try to anticipate the information that visitors will need.
Maps and directions are essential; provide professional maps of the local and surrounding area that are clearly labeled. Consider whether your visitors will be driving, walking, or hiking in your maps. If they will be driving it will be most important to have streets clearly indicated, while for those seeing the destination on foot, it will be more helpful to provide walking routes and nature trails. Between your maps and staff, be sure that directions are easily available for all primary attractions, restaurants, and lodging sites. Provide transportation information for both public and private options, such as public bus or rail options and private car rental options and costs.
Other useful information includes tours, lodging, and attractions. If possible, it is helpful if tickets are available for purchase directly at the visitor center, especially if a combination deal is available such as “3 museums for the price of 2” or “save 20% when you purchase tickets for the bird-sighting walk and the river boat tour together.” If additional information resources, such as guidebooks and translation dictionaries, are available, it is convenient for the visitor if they are offered as well.
High-quality tour information and maps and the Grand Canyon Visitor Center
3. Education Materials- In addition to practical information about the region and tours, educational and enrichment materials are valuable additions to your visitor center. Include interactive and visually appealing displays to help visitors learn about the history, wildlife, people, and culture of the region.
By allowing visitors to learn more about the region than information directly related to their tour, they will gain a deeper connection to the region and have a more meaningful tour and trip.
Interactive and attractive gorilla exhibits at the Mgahinga Visitor Center
4. Friendly Staff- While nice amenities and good information are both very important, the importance of a friendly face cannot be overemphasized. The international tourist expects to find someone at an information center who is knowledgeable, polite, respectful, fluent in the tourist’s language or English, and eager to help.
A staff member at the Mgahinga Visitor Center talks with visitors
5. Souvenirs- While a great visitor center doesn’t require souvenirs, tourists enjoy buying memorabilia to commemorate their visit, and a visitor center is a great place to sell it. Postcards are great, as well as local crafts, foods, jewelry, and products. Offering locally-made souvenirs allows visitors to remember their trip with a meaningful gifts or memento while also supporting the local economy.
Handmade bags available at the Bocas del Toro Tourist Information Center
Learn more about how to create a great visitor center and other tips for destination management with our free Tourism Destination Management e-book.